Thursday, May 29, 2014

Bridge to Terabithia

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson (1977)

Jess Aarons is determined to be the fastest runner in the fifth grade. He practices all summer, getting up early to go running before breakfast every day. Then on the first day of school he's beaten anyway - by a new girl named Leslie Burke. Despite being outshone by this tomboyish girl, the two become friends and create a magical kingdom in the woods that they call Terabithia.

Bridge to Terabithia was published when I was four, and it reminded me a whole lot of my childhood somehow. Partly I think it's because Paterson captures the imaginations of young people so well, but it also has a distinct 70s feel to me. But I don't think it feels dated, just a bit old-timey. (Jess does have to milk a cow twice a day, after all.)

I loved how Jess and Leslie created a secret magical place, one that probably looked ordinary to everyone else. They fancied themselves king and queen, even naming their dog Prince Terrien. It's a safe respite from the real world, Jess's family's money troubles and Leslie's ostracism at school.

Paterson doesn't talk down to kids, and there's some pretty tough talk here compared to more recently-written books. There's mention of a kid whose father beats her, and the response was basically "So? Whose father's doesn't beat them?" an attitude you'd be hard pressed to find in any book these days. She even compares drawing to drinking whiskey, which of course would never happen in a children's book now, unless perhaps it was part of a moral tale about alcoholism. But it was a pretty vivid comparison that made a lot of sense.

Jess's parents exhibited some subtle prejudices that perhaps are a little out of date - they disapproved of Jess's "hippie" art teacher, for instance. And Jess couldn't admit his interest in art because when he was younger and proudly told his father he wanted to be an artist, his father grumbled about the teachers at his school, "Bunch of old ladies turning my only son into some kind of a -" The thought wasn't finished, but we can guess. (Way to go, Mr. Aarons. See if your son ever confides in you again.)

Still, despite these minor outdated attitudes I appreciated the timeless themes about facing one's fears, the importance of friendship, and the perennial problem of bullying. Reading books written in different time periods really puts some of our social mores into perspective, while highlighting certain aspects of growing up that apparently never change.

You may notice, with my recent reading of Charlotte's Web and now thisthat I'm trying to catch up with some children's classics that I've missed. This might be all for now, but it's been fun to finally read these old classics.

Edited to add:  I just realized this is on my TBR Pile Challenge list as an alternate. So I'm more ahead on that challenge than I thought!

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